The attack on the British Embassy in Iran was a troubling escalation. If the attack was ordered by the supreme leader’s son, it could be just the start.
The reaction to Tuesday’s storming of the British embassy in Tehran was swift. Within 24 hours, the British government had ordered the closure of Iran's embassy in London. Other EU countries joined in the condemnation, with countries including France, Germany and the Netherlands recalling their ambassadors, while Norway closed its embassy altogether.
Tuesday’s incident signifies a new level of hostility by the Iranian government against the West, and Britain in particular. The attack took place soon after the Iranian parliament decided to downgrade relations with the U.K. over new financial sanctions imposed by the British government against Iran. The sanctions incensed Iran because they hit the regime – and especially the many corrupt politicians who have held bank accounts in London for years – where it hurts. An estimated $1.6 billion worth of these accounts, believed by the opposition to belong to the family of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, were closed soon after the 2009 post-election crackdowns in Iran. Others were closed later, much to the fury of Iran's rulers. It’s likely that the new sanctions will put even more Iranian politicians out of pocket.
But it’s not just about the money – BBC Persian is another source of contention. The BBC's Persian language service has for years been the most credible source of news for many Iranians inside and outside the country. Even Ayatollah Khomeini listened to its programs before and immediately after coming to power in 1979. But the Iranian regime has been infuriated by reports about corruption and human rights abuses in Iran, especially since the 2009 elections, and has done everything in its power to stop its broadcasts, including jamming its satellite and arresting anyone who worked with the station inside Iran.
Yet while there are some clear potential motivations for the attack, a perhaps more interesting question is who was behind it.
On this question, it seems almost certain that the attack was sanctioned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC). According to Iran's power structure, Khamenei gives the orders to the IRGC, which in turn controls the Basij militia that many analysts believe stormed the embassy. Basij members don't simply turn up to attack embassies on a whim – they need permission and operational parameters from the IRGC. They realize that crossing certain lines could mean severe punishment (possibly torture) and almost certainly the loss of their financial privileges, which for many are the main reason why they join in the first place.
Still, even if Khamenei ultimately gave the green light to the attacks, they showed a level of hostility that is unprecedented, even for the supreme leader. So, while it’s certainly possible that he has become even more hardline, there’s also another possibility that has generally been overlooked – has Khamenei, as part of a plan to groom his son Mojtaba as his successor, transferred some of his authority to his son? And if so, could this explain this dramatic escalation?
Photo Credit: Wikicommons / Americophile